Why Oscar Micheaux's Within Our Gates is So Important to The Black Experience on Film
One of the greatest misconceptions is that black Americans haven't been active participants in early American cinema. That's why The Black Experience on Film, presented by TCM in conjunction with the African American Film Critics Association (AAFCA), is essential viewing. The unprecedented eight nights of programming is an impressive and multifaceted cinematic overview of the Black experience that offers a fuller picture of black people across various spectrums of life. Appropriately, Exploring Black Identity, hosted by myself and AAFCA co-founder and CEO Gil Robertson, kicks off the first night. Of the four films we discuss, Within Our Gates, from pioneering black filmmaker Oscar Micheaux, might be the most revelatory. Released in 1920, this rarely seen film, with a virtually all black cast, counters D.W. Griffith's racially damaging The Birth of a Nation.
When both of these films were made, film itself was relatively new and had only been around since the early 1890s. Slightly later in that decade, the rumblings of a film industry started as the first films were projected to an audience. That phenomenon began to pick up steam in the early 1900s as more and more Americans began going to the movies. And The Birth of a Nation was an important pivot in that movement. Hollywood's first blockbuster remained the country's highest grossing film until Gone with the Wind dethroned it. At three hours, The Birth of a Nation was the longest film to date. It is also credited for its use of dramatic close-ups and parallel action sequences. According to celebrated TIME film critic Richard Corliss, Griffith created a visual language for film. Without The Birth of a Nation, many others have also argued, film would not have evolved as quickly as it did.
Like far too many other landmark events in our nation's history, however, this evolution came at the expense of black Americans. Adapted from the 1905 novel The Clansman by Thomas Dixon Jr., one-time politician and minister as well as a playwright and novelist, The Birth of a Nation glorifies the Ku Klux Klan's use of violence against black people. It also celebrates Dixon's revisionist history of the Civil War and Reconstruction. Hooded Klansmen are presented as justified in lynching Black men for allegedly trying to rape white women. Southern white supremacy is romanticized. So, for all its technical advancements in film and compelling story structure, at its core, The Birth of a Nation is violently anti-black. Its use in Spike Lee's most recent film, BlacKkKlansman, underscores that. Sadly, thanks to Dixon and President Woodrow Wilson once being classmates, it was even the first film screened in the White House.
This movement didn't go down without a fight. In 1905, William Monroe Trotter, a tireless civil rights warrior who co-founded the black newspaper Boston Guardian, led protests against the play The Clansman when it showed in Boston. Trotter continued the protest when the play morphed into Griffith's film. Booker T. Washington, who died later in the same year of the film's release, also openly criticized the film. The NAACP, whose leadership included W.E.B. DuBois, is more well-known for its national protest against The Birth of a Nation. But few today are aware that Oscar Micheaux actually lodged his objection in film.
Released after the end of World War I, shortly after the race riots dubbed the "Red Summer" for all the blood spilled, Within Our Gates, starring popular black actress Evelyn Preer, has several narratives that counter The Birth of a Nation. It celebrates the "New Negro," unveils the trials of keeping the doors of black schools open, sheds light on the Great Migration, addresses the mammoth struggle of black Southerners against white supremacy and documents rampant occurrence of sexual assault on black women by white men. The Ku Klux Klan is revealed as the vile, terrorist organization it has always been. Within Our Gates tells the truth about it lynching innocent black men, women and children in the South. But, unlike The Birth of a Nation, Within Our Gates was censored amid fears that the film would incite racial violence. So, in many cities, the full film was not shown. Chicago was one of the few cities that won the fight to show the entire film, which the Chicago Defender--arguably the leading black newspaper of its time--championed, encouraging every black person to see it.
Micheaux, who was born in Illinois in 1884, initially gained notoriety as a novelist and was introduced to the possibility of film when the black-owned Lincoln Motion Picture Company approached him to make his successful novel, The Homesteader, into a film. After those negotiations failed, Micheaux started the Micheaux Film & Book Company and adapted The Homesteader, releasing it in 1919. Within Our Gates, just his second film, was lost for decades until a Spanish version of it was found in the 1970s. It is important to note Within Our Gates's Spanish discovery because that documents Micheaux's success in sharing his work globally.
So much of how we view black representation in early American cinema has been determined by what we've seen in Hollywood films as black actors, regardless of their talent level or stardom on other entertainment stages, were relegated to marginalized roles as maids and butlers delighted to serve their white employers. For this reason, especially, I am delighted that The Black Experience on Film kicks off with Within Our Gates and that Gil and I get the privilege of introducing and guiding TCM viewers through its triumph.
by Ronda Racha Penrice